Whenever white people do something terrible — I could give you an example or you could just Google “Karen” and save me the trouble — I often joke to my white friends that they have to collect their people. But now, given conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s recent statements defending the president and attacking Kamala Harris, I must accept my burden, and collect this idiot.
If you’re not versed in D’Souza’s oeuvre, you’re very lucky. Originally from Mumbai, he’s a right-wing commentator perhaps best known for his yearslong hard-on for attacking Barack Obama, first in 2010 with his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and then in 2012 with a documentary based on the book. He’s also released a few other documentaries including Hillary’s America (which is an extended argument against the Democratic Party) and Death of a Nation, which features white nationalist Richard Spencer, and compares Trump to Abraham Lincoln and Democrats to fascists.
D’Souza’s latest round of comments may also be some of his dumbest. Last week he went on Twitter to, again, defend Donald Trump when the president pronounced Thailand as “Thighland.” “‘Thighland,’ not ‘Tai-land,’ is how English speakers around the world say it,” tweeted D’Souza, which is too stupid an argument to parse. Then yesterday, he hopped over to Fox News to argue that Kamala Harris shouldn’t be considered “African American” because she’s related to “one of the largest slave owners in Jamaica.”
There are many legitimate critiques to make of Kamala Harris, especially now that she’s the Democratic vice presidential pick. You can criticize her for being too much of a centrist while young Democratic voters are looking for more progressive representation. You can go after her for being a pro–law enforcement attorney general whose views don’t align with more progressive abolitionist views of the police. But going after her Blackness, and arguing that she isn’t actually Black because some of her ancestors might have been slave owners — as is true for many Black Americans, something beyond their control — is hardly relevant. It’s hard to deny that D’Souza has built his career off making ad hominem attacks against Black people. As a brown man in the media, D’Souza gets more cover than his white, conservative counterparts: It’s as if he’s saying, Me, a racist? That’s unpossible! I’m an ethnic!
I have known so many Indians like D’Souza in my life. They’re in my family, despite my best efforts to have them excommunicated. They pronounce their first names as anglicized as possible — Din-esh instead of Dhin-eish, trust me, I notice the difference, and I make fun of you — to, I can only assume, make white people comfortable. Maybe they voted for the very right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, if they’re living in India, and say things like, “Well, I’m polite to Muslims, I just wouldn’t want to befriend one.”
D’Souza is an immigrant from Mumbai but raised Catholic, who has seemingly spent his entire life trying to outrun his own heritage and his outsider-status anxiety, desperate to fit in even at the expense of his own community, or of communities with even less privilege than upwardly mobile, middle-class, America-bound Indians. His entire career has been built on boot-licking white conservatives, as if that’ll give him some protection as a brown immigrant living in America. I guess, to some degree, this has worked — in 2018, Trump gave him a pardon after he pleaded guilty to using straw donors, illegally, to contribute to a Republican Senate candidate in 2014.
This is not the first time D'Souza has said racist things against Black people. He called Obama a “boy” from “the ghetto,” and called his father a “philandering, inebriated African socialist.” He joined in on the birther movement against Obama when he was president. He declared Michelle Obama’s college thesis “a document so illiterate and incoherent that it was written … in ‘no known language’” and called Rosa Parks “overrated.” He’s tweeted about how “a disproportionate amount of violent crime is done by blacks,” and once called the late John Lewis “a nasty, bitter old man.” In one of his books, he wrote that slaves in America were treated “pretty well” because they were treated like property.
Fox News has D’Souza on its shows regularly, perhaps because he offers the network some leeway. Ben Shapiro, with his do-you-have-a-hall-pass-to-go-to-the-bathroom voice, likely can’t cast aspersions on Harris’s ethnic background without getting some well-earned criticism for it. (It’s the same reason why Shapiro won’t just say that he resents Black female sexuality with his chest and instead reads the lyrics to “WAP” like he’s allergic to them, which I assume he is, since he is the alleged president and treasurer of the DAP Society.)
But D’Souza can appear on The Ingraham Angle like a Trojan horse, his Indian name, his namaskar, Dinesh Uncle-Ji hair, and his dark — oop, but not too dark — skin, and spout off racist arguments against a Black politician. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the last few months have been a good time for all non-Black people to reflect on how we participate in the oppression of Black people. Indians, in particular, have a unique responsibility here — we have privilege not in spite of how Black people are treated around the world, but because of that treatment. My father, the other day, called me and mentioned I should keep a Gandhi portrait in my home. I gently (or as gently as the Kouls get, which is about as gentle as an ice scraper being dragged across concrete) reminded him that Gandhi, too, was a racist. Gandhi said Black people are “troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.” He believed in the “purity of races” and thought white people should be the “predominating race” in South Africa in the early 1900s.
Just like white people, Indians have also been steeped in anti-Blackness from early on in our history, even in moments when we, too, were being oppressed. D’Souza continues this long-held tradition with no subtlety and no guile. His language around Black people is something just about every Indian has heard from their own family. The difference, of course, is my racist cousin isn’t on television and doesn’t write books. I’m not even friends with him on Facebook anymore. That’s growth, kids.
There’s a long tradition of Indians being racist against Black people, and the logic is clear: If Black people remain one of — if not the — most oppressed groups in North America, then Indians are given a slightly elevated pedestal. If we act like the model minority white people want us to be, then we can thrive. D’Souza, I’m guessing, is just fine getting privilege at the cost of Black people’s dignity.
White people get away with anti-Black racism enough as it is, but anti-Blackness takes an even more pernicious tone with D’Souza because he’s using his Indianness to get away with even more. It’s important for white people to point out anti-Blackness wherever they see it, but as Harris becomes more and more prominent in this election cycle, it’s essential for Indian people to point it out in our own community, loudly and often, too. Harris is a Black woman, but she’s also an Indian woman, and her right to live in both of those identities should be protected.
It’s our duty to point out those within Indian communities — even if we don’t really want them in our community, hare raaaaaaam — who use anti-Blackness as a way to prop themselves up. It’s our responsibility to stay vigilant in how we criticize D’Souza, his toxic rhetoric that’s nothing more than misdirection during an already fraught election cycle. He isn’t better than a white man saying the same thing — in fact, he might be worse. I suspect that on some level, he knows what it’s like to have your life made smaller because of racism, discrimination, and bias.
No passes for anti-Black white people in 2020, and no passes for anti-Black Indian people either. D’Souza, I’m sure, can continue going on Fox News to keep upping the ante on what’s acceptable speech, but at the very least, I can do what so many of my fellow Indians have done for me when I did something wrong: Yell far and wide about my failures, so that every aunty in the world knew my shame.